John James, pioneer surveyor and developer during the Republic of Texas and early statehood, was born on February 13, 1819, at Gorleston, Suffolk, England, while his parents, Thomas and Ann Petty (Crosskill) James, were there on a visit from their home in Nova Scotia. He had two brothers and a sister, Charlotte, who married James R. Sweet. As a young man in Nova Scotia, John James read accounts of the Texas struggle for independence from Mexico and at age seventeen set out on a long journey south to aid the Texas cause. Delayed by illness along the way, he arrived in San Antonio in 1837. In San Antonio he was first employed by Ludovic Colquhoun to look after his land business. Soon he was made assistant surveyor and then chief surveyor of Bexar County. James learned surveying by practical field experience in the vast and largely unpopulated territory north and west of San Antonio. He began to acquire land by locating, surveying, and perfecting titles to large tracts of land in unsettled areas. He was paid in land certificates, and by hard work and expert knowledge he soon accumulated a great deal of land. It was said that James platted and recorded more land than any other single surveyor in Texas and that his name affixed to a deed was the guarantee to a perfect title. His foremost achievement as a surveyor came early in his career, when he reestablished the boundaries of the original grant from the king of Spain to the city of San Antonio after Mexican general Adrián Woll's forces captured the city in 1842.
In 1844 Henri Castro established a colony of Alsatian immigrants on the Medina River, and James was appointed to survey the farmland and plat the town lots of Castroville. He also surveyed and platted D'Hanis, Quihi, Boerne, and Bandera. He formed a partnership in 1850 with his brother-in-law James Sweet and opened a general merchandise business in San Antonio under the name of James R. Sweet and Company, which flourished until 1862, when Sweet entered the Confederate Army. In 1852 James surveyed the site of Bandera. He and Charles DeMontel opened a sawmill there known as the Bandera Mills of James, Montel, and Company. The mill produced lumber from the cypress trees along the banks of the Medina River. This provided much of the lumber used in building the frontier Texas forts. James was also instrumental in the location and development of the site on Limpia Creek in the Davis Mountains where Fort Davis was later located, the area around Fort Stockton and Comanche Spring in what is now Pecos County, and Juan Cordona Lake, where salt was mined by Peter Gallagher and Company.
James drove a large herd of cattle from San Antonio to California in 1854. With regard to livestock, however, he is better known for sheep ranching. In 1860 he imported 500 Merino sheep for his Bandera Ranch. Later, in partnership with Harry Shane, he moved the sheep to a ranch near Uvalde, where the business prospered.
At the time of the Civil War James opposed secession and endorsed the stand made by Governor Sam Houston against entering the war. He did serve as a member of the home guard in San Antonio, however. Many military figures were guests over the years in the James home on Commerce Street—among them Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Bell Hood, and William Jenkins Worth, who died there of cholera in 1849. James was a member and vestryman of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio. He was married first in 1847 to Emeline Elizabeth Polley, daughter of Texas pioneer Joseph Henry Polley. Emeline died in 1848, and James was married in 1851 to Annie Milby, daughter of William Polk Milby. They had eleven children. James died on November 26, 1877. In 1973 the city of San Antonio named a park on Rittiman Road for him.